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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Some More Fine Tuning To Strike The Right Chord - 33 Variations - Play Review

33 Variations - Eugene O'Neill Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - *** (out of 5)
Written and Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Runs until May 24th 2009.
Note: Review based on an early preview performance. Performance may have changed since.

Jane Fonda, at 71 (71!???), is back on Broadway and in excellent form. While I saw an early preview performance, and she seemed slightly nervous at the start of the play, once it got going, you could see the fine actress return to life on the stage, as she plays a crippling woman determined to discover why Beethoven chose to write a certain commission that led to his 33 Variations.

The play itself, at least at the time I saw it during previews, was one of those that seems fascinating while you watch, but in need of some major tightening and editing, and totally forgettable afterwards. It seems epic, AND personal AND complicated, but the structure of the play never seems to gel all the elements together enough to make a satisfying whole. Luckily, the production itself is gloriously elegant and strong, and almost masks the thin plot that forms the base of this new play (although it was originally presented at the Arena Stage in D.C. in 2007 and then again at La Jolla in 2008). Jane Fonda and her strong co-stars Samantha Mathis (American Psycho, Grey's Anatomy), Colin Hanks (Mad Men, Roswell), Susan Kellermann (Last Holiday), and Zach Grenier (A Man For All Seasons, Deadwood) do what they can with sketched out characters in the swirling plot lines.

By combining a modern story of a sick woman Katherine (who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) trying to live out her dream and passion of studying Beethoven in Bonn, with portions that reenact the historical on-goings of Beethoven (Grenier) while he wrote the music the woman is studying, all while the woman's daughter Clara (Mathis) begins her own relationship with Katherine's male nurse (Hanks, very much the son of his father, who breathes a natural likable everyman charm his father is so famous for) all while trying to deal with her own unsettled relationship with her sick mother.

Meanwhile, Susan Kellermann (above with Fonda) provides probably one of the most memorably characters with her smaller role as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, the scholar who ends up helping and befriending Katherine during her research. Kellermann manages to make her character both very Germanic and stiff, yet loving and very funny.

Erik Steele (above right) also steals a few scenes as Beethoven's assistant during the historical flashback's where Beethoven continues to ignore his publisher's (Don Amendolia) due dates.

All the while, it's the set, lighting, and classical music (played by Diane Walsh sitting amongst the audience just to the side of the orchestra seating) that really makes quite the impression. Derek McLane's set, David Lander's lighting, and Jeff Sugg's projections manage to smoothly switch the stage back and forth in time from the modern age to the time when Beethoven lived.

I still feel like there's a really great play within 33 Variations but at the current state I saw it in (which granted, may have changed for last night's opening night), it still needs a lot of fine tuning to strengthen the characters and their motivations, and to tighten the somewhat sagging plot. I'm not sure it will ever become a historically memorable play, but there are enough enjoyable and interesting moments to warrant further study.

And the current production is so lovingly done, despite the flaws, and with a lovely return by Fonda, that I still thought it was a worthy piece of theatre.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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